By Vivian Salama
The Current Discussion: With President Zardari forced to reverse his bans on political opponents, is Pakistan on the brink or is this a positive sign? What, if anything, can the West do to help maintain stability and democracy?
In less than one month, Pakistan’s government has conceded not once, but three times, to challengers both political and militant in nature. Those concessions have raised concerns about Pakistan’s vulnerability and its inability to suppress its growing militant problem or prevent violent disputes with the opposition.
The first concession came last month when, after more than a year-long offensive in the embattled Swat Valley, the military signed a cease fire with the Taliban, folding to the longtime demands of Islamic militants to implement Shari’a law in the region. Some of the region’s residents remain hopeful that the region will return to a Shari’a that was at one time a moderate, locally-based alternative to the country’s drawn-out federal legal proceedings. But the concession blatantly exposes the Pakistani military’s inability to prevent extremism from seeping into the heart of the country. Located a mere 160 kilometers from Islamabad, Taliban militants now stand at Pakistan’s front door. It is only a matter of time before they move in.
The second concession was on March 3rd, when at least 12 heavily armed militants staged a commando-style attack on a convoy carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team, coaches and referees to the Gadaffi Stadium in Lahore. I will not explore the various conspiracy theories now floating around Pakistan about who is to blame for these atrocious attacks, which claimed the lives of six police officers and a driver. But I will point out that at the time this post was published, all the assailants remained at large. The scene of the crime, Liberty Square, is a heavily congested roundabout in the heart of Pakistan’s cultural capital. The attacks happened not in the evening like the Mumbai attacks, but during the morning rush hour. There is surveillance video shot by camera crews at television studios based in Liberty Square. The gunmen are reported to have been carrying large bags. British cricket referee Chris Broad has lashed out at the Pakistani government, saying that there was no sign of security at the time of the attacks. The fact that the gunmen got away and have thus far managed to avoid arrest is alarming.
In an interview with opposition leader Nawaz Sharif days after the attacks, Sharif claimed that the government’s failure to ensure the security of the cricketers is the direct result of its preoccupation with politics and stifling the opposition.
Finally, after the February 25th decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court to ban Nawaz Sharif and his brother from elected office, President Asif Zardari’s decision to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry, the country’s Chief Justice, came as a surprise to many.
The past fortnight has been particularly turbulent in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province and the PML-N stronghold. The highly anticipated cross country “long march” never made it to Islamabad as protesters had initially planned, but it found victory in Lahore. Many pundits pointing to “Punjab Power” as the source of the shake-up.
President Zardari has never been popular. He was not popular even as the husband of Benazir Bhutto, when she was Prime Minister. As the leader of a civilian government, he is far more vulnerable to the will of the people than his military predecessor, the equally unpopular General Pervez Musharraf, who had the backing of the army.
His decision to reinstate Iftikhar Chaudhry was indeed a positive step, but it is not the solution to Pakistan’s problems. A coalition government, similar to that agreed upon between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif just before Bhutto’s assassination, is now needed if Pakistan is to take a serious step against its increasingly dangerous militant problem. Pakistan’s current leadership must show that it is above petty politics by genuinely reaching out to the opposition, rather than making occasional concessions that ultimately expose its inner weaknesses.